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Gaming Obscura: Backbreaker

Robert Grosso / August 27, 2015 at 9:00 AM / Gaming, Opinions

With football season almost upon us, now is the time a large population of gamers decide to come out of their caves to plop $60.00 down for the latest version of Madden. The ever popular sports sim sells millions each year, with long-term sales for the franchise pushing nearly $50 million since 2001, if sales figures are to be believed. Without any doubt, Madden is the king of the pigskin in the gaming market, for good or for ill. Thankfully there are alternatives to Madden, and one of my favorites is also a football game few people know about, called Backbreaker.

 Backbreaker is an arcade-style football game that doesn’t have official licensed teams. The reason for the lack of competition has to do with the exclusivity deal signed by the NFL and Electronic Arts in 2004. A deal that gives EA the sole rights to the logos and players of the National Football League. This killed the NFL 2k Franchise and any other games that bared NFL players names such as the Blitz series or the Quarterback Club games. 

This has not stopped some football games from hitting the market though. Midway attempted to revive the Blitz franchise with custom teams and retired players, but over-emphasized shock value and had unpolished gameplay behind the new Blitz titles, losing a bit of it’s arcade-y edge. The 2k series attempted an All-Star Football game in 2007, again using retired athletes and custom teams, but suffered a similar fate as the Blitz series with even choppier presentation.

In fact, no game outside of Madden since the exclusivity deal has been able to break through fully into the mainstream. The constant updates and simulation-feel Madden has is a strong one; it allows it to monopolize the market as the best official NFL title out there. So the track record for non-Madden games is pretty bad overall.

Backbreaker, however, is a bit different. For starters, the game was developed by NaturalMotion, a company that doesn’t specialize in game making but animation technology. The Oxford based studio commercialized the use of procedural animation, using a self-created system called Dynamic Motion Synthesis. DMS has roots in robotic theory, as their engines attempt to simulate life-like movements based on a motor controlled nervous system. The result is synthesized simulation; each character when struck or moving has something different happen to them instead of dealing with canned animations, all done in an attempt to mimic real-life movement. 

Their first engine, Endorphin, was used primarily for movies and some games such as Troy, Tekken 5, and Metal Gear Solid. NaturalMotion has since made two other engines, Morpheme, which is a toolkit that blends animations and inverse kinematics instead of relying on DMS, with games like Pure, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Bioshock Infinite using the tool. The second, the Euphoria engine, is a runtime engine on the DMS design, first used in Grand Theft Auto IV. Other titles to use Euphoria include Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and GTA V

The use of NaturalMotion’s animation engines is not widely popular, primarily due to NaturalMotion itself. The company early on only used their engines as consulting tools for bigger companies, in particular Rockstar and Lucasarts, for a fee. Their engines were not available for public use either; from 2001-2011 the engines were not considered middleware by NaturalMotion. The company essentially provided their technology for a few private contracts, making the engines scarce outside of a few studios.

In 2007, NaturalMotion began work on a full-scale game of their own, titled Backbreaker. Using both the Euphoria and Morpheme engine, the game was designed to provide a dynamic tackle engine, showcasing the technology NaturalMotion is famous for. Originally planned for a 2008 release, the game would be delayed until mid 2010. By that time, NaturalMotion would create their own game studio and release an iOS version of Backbreaker in 2009.

Because of the exclusivity license held by EA, Backbreaker would not have any professional football teams. Instead, NaturalMotion provided a robust customization toolkit, so that players can create their own teams, leagues, players and statistics in its place. All the teams featured in Backbreaker were created by the team and logo editor, so everything in the game has been crafted from the ground up, with 32 extra slots for more customized teams. In total, there was enough in the toolkit to even faithfully recreate professional NFL teams, something many in the Backbreaker community did the moment they got their hands on the game.

Backbreaker would include more arcade-like elements than other football games, including an arcade-style mode for fast action and less strategy. Thanks to the Euphoria engine, the title had more simulated animations than the Madden series. Gameplay wise it was simpler and more action-heavy; one noticeable change compared to Madden included placing the camera closer to the action after the ball snaps. This ironically makes the game harder to play, since rush and pass plays are difficult to pull off with the closer camera. The benefit though is tighter action, which gives the game a more casual twist to the play by play, despite offering a fairly detailed tackle game.

Backbreaker does offer a pro mode as well, which in turn makes the controls more akin to a Madden title. The control-scheme allows players to do all the normal tricks you would expect from a football game, juking, diving, tackling and stiff arming those in your way to break free from tackles and gain a few extra yards on the field. Couple this with the need for strategy in the pro mode and the customizable A.I settings, Backbreaker can imitate a Madden title quite easily, despite the lack of detailed plays and diversity in your playbook when on the field. 

Perhaps the biggest success out of Backbreaker would be the tackle alley mode. Not only showcasing the physics engine in all of its glory, the arcade-style minigame was a fun diversion from generic football. So popular was tackle alley mode that a whole second game, titled Backbreaker 2: Vengeance, was made with that mode exclusively, and has since gone on to become a very popular phone game. 

When it was finally released, the game did receive some positive press, but like Blitz and 2k before it, failed to catch on fully as Madden reigned king. Backbreaker would go on to be NaturalMotion’s only major release on consoles, the rest of their library would be on iOS and Android, or downloadable titles for Xbox Live and PSN. NaturalMotion would also go on to release their engines for licensing to the public as official middleware in 2013. NaturalMotion itself would be purchased by Zynga for $527 million a year later and has since released a few more Android and iOS titles. Sadly, the future of the Backbreaker franchise is currently in question.

Thankfully, Backbreaker had a legion of devoted fans involved in the game. So devoted that the game’s major patch update by NaturalMotion, titled Greathouse, was named after a dedicated forum member who pointed out the flaws the game had. Since then, there have been three Greathouse patches, eliminating several of the complaints presented by critics back in 2010. This has improved the longevity of the game, which still maintains a cult following and one of the few modern alternatives to the Madden franchise to actually hold its own.

While it might be too late to reevaluate Backbreaker from a critical aspect, it is without a doubt a pretty good football game. Madden is known for being the game that simulates the atmosphere of the NFL, right down to the stadium size and use of real-life player-likenesses. Backbreaker lacks the pageantry and prestige of a Madden title but certainly packs more fun and creativity, as well as pure, unadulterated football action. For my money at least, Backbreaker is the best football game out on the market if you are not in the mood for a simulated experience. For many sports fans, Backbreaker is not going to be their cup of tea, but for non-sports fans, it might be as close as they get to going on the gridiron now a days. 

I hope you guys enjoyed this weeks episode! If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or contact me on [email protected] See you next time.

Robert Grosso

Staff Writer

A game playing, college teaching, erudite-minded scholar who happens to write some articles every so often. Have worked as a journalist, critic, educator and blogger for over five years now, with articles published (as user editorials) on Game Revolution and Giant Bomb as well as a contributor for the websites Angry Bananas and Blistered Thumbs. Now making TechRaptor my home.